Looking back on Jo Siffert

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Remember October 24th 1971? It was a crisp autumn day and Brands Hatch basked beneath cloudless skies under a sun which was surprisingly warm for that time of the year. Jackie Stewart had just won his second, World Championship title and, as the Mexican Grand Prix had been cancelled, a non-championship 40 lap event at the Kent circuit filled the gap in the calendar. Billed as the Rothmans World Championship Victory Race, it was an added bonus for British spectators who were receiving their fifth dose of Formula 1 action that season after the Grand Prix at Silverstone and three other non-championship events.

As the front row moved forward from the dummy grid, the crowd applauded the fact that two shovel-nose Yardley BRM P160s lined up in first and second positions. Jo Siffert was on pole, Peter Gethin in the centre of the front row and Emerson Fittipaldi’s Gold Leaf Lotus 72 on the outside. Siffert had earlier been on the front row for the British Grand Prix’ at Silverstone and won the Austrian Grand Prix to boost the English team’s morale after the sad loss of Pedro Rodriguez in a sports car accident at the Norisring. The moustachioed Swiss had been good for BRM and there was still some way to go before the “English Ferrari” subsided again to the status of a music hall joke in the mid-1970s. The fans were keeping their fingers crossed for a Bourne victory in this half-distance Formula 1 sprint.

Siffert got off the line slowly and it was Gethin who bounded through Paddock Bend in the lead with Fittipaldi snapping at his gearbox. The pole position BRM briefly banged wheels with Ronnie Peterson’s March 711, but whether this impact caused any problem is something we will never know for certain. Initially Siffert’s progress through the field was unimpressive, but he soon got into the swing of things and before long, the predominantly white BRM with its red-helmeted driver was climbing through the field: by lap 11 he was up to fourth behind Gethin, Fittipaldi and Stewart.

Suddenly, at the end of lap 15, silence fell across the Brands Hatch stadium, terrible in its strange intensity. It seemed as though, at the same split-second, not only did the racing engines die away, but the chatter from the crowd was instantly silenced. There were thousands of spectators enjoying this autumn motor racing bonanza, but, for a few seconds, you could have almost heard a pin drop. Then came that heart-stopping pall of black smoke, rising vertically into the sky over Hawthorn Hill. Jo Siffert’s BRM had crashed, caught fire and the genial Swiss driver perished in the inferno.

I quote from Siffert’s obituary in the December, 1971 issue of Motor Sport where A.R.M. remarked “…the best tribute of all we could bestow on the friendly, dapper little Swiss was the one we overheard at Brands Hatch at the end of the tragic meeting. Two ordinary enthusiasts were walking back to their car and one turned to another and said: ‘It’s a great shame, I liked Jo Siffert’. Almost certainly that spectator had never met him, yet those simple words so aptly expressed the esteem which he, and thousands of motor racing enthusiasts all over the World, felt for Jo Siffert”.

Although he never really achieved any great success in Grand Prix cars, Jo Siffert was always the kind of driver who attracted a huge following amongst his enthusiastic fans, and although his single-seater achievements were patchy, he was to win enormous acclaim as a sports car driver of skill and repute. But it was his attitude which helped endear him to the fans every bit as much as his driving prowess: he had a simple, uncomplicated enthusiasm which was never dimmed by short term adversity. He loved motor racing, straightforward and simple, and he made it his entire life. He was an exciting, sometimes unpredictable, driver to watch, but he always tried hard and radiated a zest for the sport which seemed somehow contagious.

Born on July 7th 1936, in the Swiss town of Fribourg, just to the southwest of Berne, Jo Siffert was the son of a car dealer, so it was no surprise when he became infatuated with cars and motorcycles from an early age. In order to obtain his heart’s desire, his first motorcycle, Siffert picked and sold flowers as well as collecting spent army shells on the military ranges which he sold back to the thrifty military for re-cycling. His serious racing began in 1957 on a 125 cc Gilera and he later graduated to a larger capacity machine on which he won the Swiss 350 cc championship two years later. This early resourcefulness never left Siffert and he applied it to good effect when he moved into four-wheeled competition in 1960.

Formula Junior was the only category available to any Grand Prix aspirant at the time and Siffert attacked his new project with gusto, although his first car, a Stanguellini, proved distinctly less than successful. He quickly transferred to a Lotus 18, then to a Lotus 20 with which he won at Cesanatico, Lake Garda and the Eifelrennen at Nürburgring in 1961. He also finished third in the Grand Prix des Frontieres at Chimay in Belgium, behind the Cooper-BMCs of John Love and Tony Maggs, followed Love home again in second place at Caserta and notched up a trio of victories towards the end of the season at Enna-Pergusa, where he beat Lorenzo Bandini into second, Cadours and Montlhéry.

Sharing with Maggs and Team Lotus’ Trevor Taylor, Siffert jointly won the European F/Junior title and he decided to supplement the purchase of a new Lotus 22 for 1962 by acquiring a four-cylinder Clirriax-engined Lotus 21 Formula 1 machine as well. Jo made his Formula 1 debut using the 22, equipped with a 1.5-litre Cosworth-Ford engine, in the Brussels Grand Prix, finishing an encouraging sixth, but the 21 did not get its maiden outing until Pau where Siffert finished seventh. His first World Championship Grand Prix was the Belgian race at Spa-Francorchamps, where he was placed 10th, and he continued fielding the car in a limited number of events for the remainder of the season. In 1963 he forged a partnership with wealthy Swiss privateer Georges Filipinetti to run a BRM V8-engined Lotus 24. In it he finished second to Jim Clark’s Team Lotus 25 at Imola, and then won at Syracuse. Mid-season, he decided to buy the Lotus off Filipinetti, but then rather fell out with the Swiss team boss when he tried to race the Lotus in the Rome Grand Prix at Vallelunga, arriving in Italy to find that his entry had been cancelled because Filipinetti had insisted the Swiss Automobile Club refuse him a visa to race. He was supposed to be driving a Filipinetti Ferrari GTO in the Nürburgring 1,000 kms race the same day: in the event, he drove in neither!

For 1964 he became one of the first customers for a Brabham Formula 1 car, his BRM engined BT11 being built up at the firm’s Byfleet factory by his loyal mechanics, Heini Mader (now an engine specialist of international repute who prepares BMW Grand Prix engines for the Arrows team) and Jean-Pierre Oberson (who runs Siffert’s old garage in Fribourg to this day). Once initial teething troubles had been ironed out, Siffert really began to fly in this BT11, slamming round the sun-scorched Enna-Pergusa autodrome in Sicily to beat Jim Clark’s Lotus-Climax to win the Mediterranean Grand Prix – a victory over Clark which he duplicated precisely 12 months later in the 1965 event. He finished fourth in the German Grand Prix and third in the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen to underline to the world he was a driver worth keeping an eye on.

In 1965 he retained his Brabham, but Siffert was taken under Rob Walker’s wing and entered in the Englishman’s distinctive team colours of dark blue with a white nose-band. This enabled him simply to concentrate on his racing while Rob’s organisation took over arranging his entries, starting money negotiations, etc. Jo Bonnier was already on the Walker team, but there is no doubt that the somewhat aloof Swede never forged quite such a warm relationship with his boss as that which was to be enjoyed between Siffert and Rob Walker. In a brilliant drive, Siffert almost won at Syracuse again, beating off a challenge from Clark’s Lotus and Surtees’ Ferrari to build up a commanding advantage: alas, the car jumped out of gear over a bump, the engine over-revved quite dramatically and that was the end of the story.

By the end of the 1965 season it was clear that Walker would only be running a single car in the new 3-litre formula and most people close to the business were not in the least bit surprised when Siffert was retained and Bonnier dropped. It was rather difficult to know what was the best machine to buy for a privateer, but Rob opted for one of the ponderous Cooper-Maserati T81 V12s, a difficult and often unreliable proposition. The team’s problems in 1966 with this cumbersome machine seemed endless, but things perked up towards the end of the season and Siffert took a strong fourth in the United States Grand Prix. By now Rob had a partner to share the cost of his F1 racing – City stockbroker Jack Durlacher. Walker retained the Cooper-Maserati, but it was quite obvious that something better would be required if Siffert was to have half a chance, so Rob acquired one of the sensational Lotus-Cosworth 49s for the start of the ’68 season, the first one of these Chapman-designed pace-setters to fall into private hands.

This new car represented a considerable financial outlay (or Walker, but a disaster of horrifying proportions unfolded from the moment Siffert took it out onto the circuit at Brands Hatch for some unofficial practice in preparation for its debut in the Race of Champions. The track was very wet and Siffert, caught out by the sudden burst of power as the Cosworth DFV surged onto song, lost control and crashed heavily at South Bank. The Lotus was very badly damaged, but there was worse to come. The 49 was returned to the team’s racing base adjacent to Pippbrook Garage in Dorking and the task of dismantling the crumpled machine got under way. Unfortunetely a spark ignited some of the petrol being drained from the Lotus’ tank and in a flash the car and workshop was on fire. Before the conflagration could be doused, the whole workshop was gutted and the remains of the Lotus, plus much of Walker’s priceless racing archives dating back to the 1930s, destroyed with it.

This was the sort of catastrophe dreaded by every major works racing organisation, but for it to strike at a popular private team such as Rob Walker’s seemed particularly harsh. The predicament Walker now found himself in attracted widespread sympathy, but it was the considerable financial generosity of his brother-in-law, Sir Val Duncan, which enabled Rob to bridge the gap and get the team operational again. An ex-works 49 chassis, which had been used in the Tasman series, was hastily put together to tide Siffert over the first few races of the European season while an order was put in for one of the very latest specification 49Bs.

It was not until Thursday July 18th that the Walker Lotus 49B made its first public appearance, wheeled out into the paddock at Brands Hatch to practise for the 1968 British Grand Prix. Rob’s mechanics were literally still screwing it together that morning, but the car ran faultlessly throughout practice and Siffert loved every moment of his two days’ practice. Graham Hill put the works Gold Leaf 49B on pole position with a Iap of 1 min 28.9 sec, ahead of Jack Oliver’s sister car (1 min 29.4 sec) and Chris Amon in the Ferrari 312 (1 min 29.5 sec) while on the second row was Siffert (1 min 29.7 sec) and Jochen Rindt’s Brabham-Repco BT26 (1 min 29.9 sec).

At the start of the 80-lap race Siffert streaked straight into third place behind the works Lotuses and held station as first Oliver, then Hill asserted themselves at the front of the field. With Siffert holding that strong third, the Lotus 1-2-3 continued until lap 27 when Hill’s engine expired and he pulled off very suddenly. By this time Amon had hauled his Ferrari up onto Siffert’s tail and briefly got through into second place, but the Walker Lotus driver fought back superbly and on lap 44 got back in front once again, just as Oliver rolled to a halt with a broken ZF gearbox on his works 49B. So Siffert was now in the lead and, despite some heroic counter-attacks by the pursuing Ferrari driver, the Swiss held on to win by slightly over three seconds. It was one of the greatest jewels in the Walker team’s crown, every bit as satisfying as the best Stirling Moss could offer in his heyday, and a tremendous reward for all those who had worked so hard preparing the new Lotus for its victorious debut. It was to be the very last time that a proprietary racing car, purchased by an independent team, would win in a World Championship Grand Prix.

By this stage in his career, however, Siffert was concentrating as much of his efforts on sports car racing as he was on Grands Prix and was to enjoy an increasing level of success as a member of the Porsche endurance team. He had several placings in a works 910 during 1967, but the following year he shared the winning 907 at Daytona with Vic Elford, Rolf Stommelen, Hans Herrmannn and Jochen Neerpasch and also scored victories at Sebring (with Herrmann), the Nürburgring 1000 kms (with Elford) and the Austrian 1000 kms. In 1969 his Porsche success became even more spectacular and he shared a works 908 to win the BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch, Monza, Spa, Nürburgring and Watkins Glen. He also shared one of the new, tricky flat-12 917s with Kurt Ahrens to notch up another victory in the Austrian 1000 kms.

Meanwhile, in Formula 1 Siffert remained loyal to Walker right through until the end of the 1969 season, driving with great spirit and gusto in the progressively updated Lotus 49B, but never quite snatching a second Grand Prix victory. None the less, by the end of the 1969 season he was being courted very seriously by Ferrari, the Italian marque in a position to offer him both Grand Prix and sports car programmes.

The Porsche team was aghast. It had no intention of losing Siffert to its sports car team, but was in no position to offer him a Formula 1 drive. For a while it seemed as though Siffert might well join Ickx at Ferrari, but eventually Porsche came up with the wherewithal to place the Swiss driver in the new STP March team alongside

Chris Amon. Walker reluctantly said goodbye to his longtime loyal friend, appreciating that Siffert really deserved the chance afforded by a full works team, but the switch to March turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. The March 701 was, quite frankly, not competitive and Siffert found himself well down the pecking order behind Amon and Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell entry. He didn’t score a single top six finish that season…

In 1971, Siffert made another change. Still productively linked with the now Gulf-sponsored works John Wyer-fielded Porsche team for the endurance races, he signed to partner his JW / Gulf rival Pedro Rodriguez in the Yardley BRM squad. The latest Tony Southgate-designed P160 promised to sustain the form demonstrated by the P153 which had carried Rodriguez to victory in the 1970 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, so Siffert looked forward to the new season with some relish. At last it seemed that the cards had fallen his way: he had a fully competitive car from a Formula 1 works team in addition to his superb JW / Gulf Porsche 917 which he shared with Englishman Derek Bell.

Rodriguez and Siffert were out of the same mould, perhaps both too strongminded to have in the same team at the same time. Siffert and Bell opened the season with a victory in the Buenos Aires 1,000 kms, but that proved to be the only race his combo would win during the season, taking second places at Spa, Monza and the Nürburgring, The rivalry between the two JW / Gulf Porsche number one drivers was such that Rodriguez and Siffert crossed the bridge at Eau Rouge during the Spa race with their 917s rubbing doors. You can’t get more competitive than that amongst so-called team-mates!

Prior to Rodriguez’s death, the best placing a BRM P160 managed was when Pedro slithered to second place behind Jacky Ickx’s Ferrari in the rain-soaked Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. Siffert was cast in something of a supporting role in the Formula 1 team until after Rodriguez was lost, after which tragedy the Swiss rose to fill the breach magnificently, assuming the burden of responsibility as team leader in brilliant fashion. He led the Austrian Grand Prix in champion style from start to finish, his P160 slowed only by a puncture in the closing stages which allowed Emerson Fittipaldi’s Gold Leaf Lotus 72 to get uncomfortably close in the final moments of the race. He rounded off the season by coming close to a third victory by following Francois Cevert’s Tyrrell home to take second in the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, tying for fourth place in the Championship with Jacky Ickx.

There seems little doubt that Jo Siffert was on the verge of establishing himself as a top-line Grand Prix driver when that tragic Brands Hatch accident abruptly cut short his career at the age of 35. The crucial turning point for the pleasant, easy-going Swiss had come at the start of 1970 when he declined the Ferrari offer in order to stay a member of the Porsche endurance team. It was a decision which would guarantee victory in many endurance races, but it inadvertently short-changed Siffert on the Grand Prix front.

Thirteen years after his death, it is tempting, if idle, to speculate what Jo Siffert might have achieved had he signed for the Prancing Horse for 1970. He might well have achieved considerably more success than his countryman Clay Regazzoni who eventually got the vacant Ferrari drive. As it is, on the Formula 1 front at least, we recall Jo Siffert’s life and times with pleasure for the way in which he did things rather than the achievements he actually chalked up. Memories are of a dark blue Lotus 49B flashing round Massenet into Casino Square at Monaco, clawing for adhesion with its inside front wheel waving clear of the ground like a racing Lotus Cortina, its driver nonchalantly winqing on the opposite lock as he did so… or the blue and orange Porsche 917 twitching its shrill way through the Masta Kink… He was short on hard results in F1, but had an abundance of enthusiasm and talent which might well have earned him many more Grand Prix victories under different circumstances. A.H.